OK, so I didn't get to carry a gun or sleep with a hot girl named Heavenly Rider but getting a chance to see a new PRO bike months before its official debut at the Tour de France was pretty cool. After swearing I hadn't been tailed and signing an electronic NDA in the lobby, I nervously put on the S-Works blindfold and let myself be led by a circuitous route to a holding cell deep in the bowels of Specialized's Morgan Hill HQ.
A bug sweep and polygraph administered by a heavily embrocated Belgian named Wout seemed to satisfy the watching security cameras because the test abruptly ended, a heavy steel door opened and I was welcomed into a brightly lit locker room to shower and put on the red overalls I'd be wearing for the duration of my stay. "Can I keep these", I inquired? "Afraid not, they're paper and they contain a special accelerant that flash incinerates when it comes in contact with outside air. "Oh, it's too hot to go outside anyway"... I offered looking down at my crotch and nervously zipping up.
In actual fact Specialized's Design/Tech center does bear a certain resemblance to James Bond's Q Branch, with all manner of apparatus for testing the two-wheeled weapons coming out their labs. My assignment was to photograph a brand new Tarmac SL3 build, smartly dressed in Saxo Bank Team livery, as it got its final adjustments and tweaks. This was the culmination of another two year project to improve and refine Specialized's flagship road racing platform; a few weeks later the bike would be under the Schleck's, Sparticus and Boonen, front and center in the peloton circling France.
At this rarefied level, every piece of carbon in the Tarmac's composition and every gram of resin that bonds the SL3 layup had been optimized through countless prototypes, machine tests and rider feedback. With so many accomplished riders on staff, and a daily hammerfest on the back roads of Northern California, they've got the equivalent of a Formula 1 test program even before sponsored riders provide their invaluable feedback.
In a well lit "build room" bustling with activity, engineers and mechanics, Andy Schiffer, R&D Shop Supervisor, took charge of the final build details: fine-tuning Red shifting; trimming/crimping cables; and wrapping the bars all the while fielding a constant stream of questions and requests from Product Managers looking for project builds of their own. Luc Callahan and Brad Paquin, lead engineers on the SL3 project joined in the discussions and I got some photos of them inspecting the headtube of a second SL3 frame with a fiber optic camera.
Using the tool Brad and Luc got an accurate picture of the FACT (Functional Advanced Composite Technology) details inside the frame that contribute to its exceptional stiffness to weight ratio. While we've all come to appreciate the benefits of optimized tube profiles and graceful transitions in advanced road bikes, Specialized has made significant advances further contouring, ribbing and gusseting the internal surfaces of the Tarmac's four monocoque sections to improve performance. Inner Space, the next frontier.
I kept shooting and pretty soon the bike was complete and ready for some glamor shots. We had about an hour before the lunch ride ritual when everything, and seemingly everyone stops what they're doing, kits up and rides out for an hour of high stakes (as in bragging rights) pedaling. If I were to sum up the experience of visiting Specialized I'd highlight three things.
Science. If you ride a Specialized bike you can feel confident there's real science working in the machine beneath you. Bikes like the Tarmac are not the product of tinkering and accident. There's enough pseudo science in sports equipment to put a man on the surface of Arizona if you know what I mean, but the engineers behind the stylized "S" really know what they're doing.
Creativity. This is a cool place to work, and the building is full of beautiful bicycles, many of them one-off creations and prototypes, not to mention cycling photography and art. You could definitely spend several days in the building and not run out of interesting things to discover.
Legs. The Specialized crew has the legs to rip most of ours off. They all ride and its a wonder any of them have cars and houses because I get the impression they're the first in line to buy the bikes they're designing and building. Happy addicts, every single one of them.
Oh, and the car. It's the creation of Robert Egger, who heads up the Specialized Design team. It was parked a few feet away from where Robert was working on a helmet prototype. Makes a very nice background doesn't it.
Fast forward to the present. I've got a matte black 54cm SL3 sitting in the garage for the next couple of weeks. SRAM Red, Zipp 202s, and trick TRP brakes add up to one super light rocket. It's more lethal than a flame throwing fountain pen. Thanks Sean.